Don’t trust anyone over 30!
Accept my apologies for the delay in writing. Between sick parents, official inspections, exam week, world cups and IELTS examining, my time for sitting down and blogging was diminished. But with a wife and family in Spain, a body clock that doesn’t realise that today is a non-work day and with no football scheduled until late afternoon, I thought I might rattle off a new tirade, inspired by the Old Master and his faithful translators. And whilst the slogan “Don’t trust anyone over 30” is aimed at Da Yoot, verse 30 from the TTC is aimed at the Oldies, those in positions of authority and power. As usual, I do a disservice to the writing, but I hope that I can be forgiven.
Struggling with your job? Worn down by your students? Alienated from your employer? Chapter 30 tells you not to kick off just yet. In a statement that should be painted in all staffrooms, Lao warns that force would only cause resistance. He addresses this chapter to any rulers who want to be advised in the way of Tao. For rulers, read “teachers” and listen to Lao:
Just do what needs to be done.
Never take advantage of power.
Wow. Just do what needs to be done. That’s easy. Right? OK, maybe not. “What is to be done?” as V.I. Lenin once pondered (before deciding that imprisoning dissent and abandoning any thoughts of social equality was the answer). Well, English is to be taught. How is that to be done? And here is where Lao’s exhortation really becomes interesting to me: Just do what needs to be done. In the moment that it needs to be done. In the manner that it needs to be done in. When a student says something that isn’t immediately clear, say, “What?” If a student says something that sounds woefully inappropriate, react in a stunned/shocked manner. Be the listener your learners may encounter in a different setting. Let the language develop in response to you doing what needs to be done. Note that contrary to current thinking (which dictates that every eventuality can be planned for) Lao does not say, “Just plan to do what needs to be done.” He says, “Just do it.” Not in a Nike-sense. You don’t need to imprison pregnant mothers in factories and subject them to weekly humiliation. You just need to react to what is happening in front of you.
Never take advantage of power means put aside those fetish objects such as your in-built grammar and extensive vocabulary. When I was a younger, different teacher, I used my knowledge of grammar and my control over the lexicon as tools and badges of power and authority. My word was law because I knew more. Luckily, my students were so wonderful that my naivety did not do too much damage. The teacher who needs to wield authority in such a manner is never really going to teach anybody anything of much use to the world. Years later I have discovered that authority has one supremely useful purpose: it can act as the focal point for the critical mind. In other words, authority unchallenged is a waste of time. As what is laughingly-termed a middle manager, this can sometimes be very uncomfortable for me because people think that to challenge authority, you have to be combative, aggressive, vicious. But that is ridiculous. Whether we like it or not, the person who is imbued with authority is, above all, a person. Their authority isn’t based on power. It’s based on their knowledge or their experience. (This is not true if they are an authority that needs to wear a gun on its hip or carry a baton down their trousers.) Their authority can be challenged by asking questions, sharing ideas, putting forward plans for the future, treating them as colleagues rather than hate figures. And by challenging their authority, you are also offering to share in it, to benefit from it, to develop it. The best kind of manager is the manager who invites staff to question their authority. And teachers often forget that we are managers of people’s learning. To many learners, we are not their friends, we are figures of authority.
Lao also calls for humility: achieve results, he says, but don’t glory in them, don’t boast about them, and don’t feel proud of them. Achieve results, he says, because it is only natural to achieve results. It is a sign that you are alive and still moving. Whilst that may be cause for celebration, it is nothing to crow about. I also think that this speaks to teachers directly. You are not responsible for the successes of your learners; they are. They learnt the knowledge; they applied it; they integrated it. You managed not to screw it up. Big tickle. They learnt language because language gets learnt. You managed to avoid being a great bloody boulder in the path of the stream. Well done. When your class all romp home in an exam, scoring higher marks than have ever been given out before; when learners are clamouring to get into your class because you are such a Bloody Wonderful Teacher; when colleagues are desperate to come and observe you because you, above all others, are God’s Gift To Teaching, this is when you need to get a grip. In Lao’s words, this is not the way of Tao. And Lao is not calling for some false humility here: “Oh shucks, it was nothing.” Lao would expect you to say, “Oh shucks, it was nothing. The learners did well in spite of me; how can people know they want to be in my class until they have been in my class? Because of my reputation? But that is built on the successes of other people. People are welcome to come and observe me, but I want them to tell me how I could be better. ”
Let people talk about you and say great things, but remember Yin and Yang: other people will be saying less fragrant things about you. And the truth will lie somewhere in-between. Force, says Lao, is followed by loss of strength. Similarly, praise is followed by loss of faith. Your authoirty will be questioned. Do not let it be found wanting! Start the process by questioning it yourself.